If you were to base your judgments solely on the trailers, you would be forgiven if you thought “Hustlers” was bound to be a second, non-NC-17 rated version of “Showgirls”. Let’s face it, the idea of a movie starring strippers is still viewed as a slight taboo in society, and most audiences rarely look beyond the surface-level of a film to make opinions on its substance. And on the rare times they do accept the subject matter, it is mostly along the lines of wanting to see the main actors and actresses as close to naked as possible (I am looking at you “Magic Mike”). I am sure there was an idea floating about that this would be a softcore porno that offers nothing more than risqué material that will push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in polite society. The fact that Cardi B is in it probably didn’t do much to make the case that this was a serious film either.
Anybody who ventures into a theater and makes it through the first half-hour or so will realize that the film really isn’t about stripping or being a stripper, but rather a group of several women who use their experience as strippers on Wall Street to manipulate and steal from high-rolling financial workers. This is more of a heist movie than a movie about exotic dancing, with motifs and ideas that actually warrant some discussion. In reality, the film is about the personal bonds these women formed with each other and the crimes they committed, just wearing the theme of strippers as a coat of paint.
While the cast of this ensemble film is all likable, we only get to know Constance Wu’s Dorothy (AKA “Destiny”) and Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona, both of whom do an exceptional job in their respective roles. Destiny is the audience’s surrogate. While she is not exactly a total newcomer to the exotic dancing scene, she is a novice in comparison to Ramona who seemingly is a seasoned professional who knows all the secrets and tricks to make the most money. We learn from Ramona alongside Destiny, and we watch Destiny gradually shift from a follower to a co-leader of the group. Ramona, on the other hand, embraces the mentor role from the beginning. You can see she thrives when younger dancers come to her for advice. She is the older sister/mother to all of the women who so desperately have a void in their lives in that particular role. And it is because of the natural gravitation that she can convince her friends to push the limits of the law.
The strength of the film is undoubtedly the characters, specifically Destiny and Ramona. Both possess a likeability about them that gives their human side an appeal. Destiny expresses her emotions in a visible light, whereas Ramona hides hers under layers of a tough, Brooklyn façade. Both characters embrace the idea of living in luxury, if they can, while simultaneously understanding that providing for the people they care about is the minimum goal. The circumstances and motivations for the characters change throughout the film, often reacting to real-life economic conditions. Since their business is so closely tied to the spending and lifestyle of Wall Street employees and executives, their methods and reasoning adjust to the current situation. Early in the film, money was abundant and they simply were trying to maximize how much each patron spent at the club. They were honest workers who may have used manipulation tactics, but certainly nothing illegal. But when the economy crashed in 2008 and their club almost went under, the girls turned to baiting, drugging, and stealing from men instead, often completely ruining these men in the process. Although it was objectively not righteous of them, they do morally justify themselves saying that Wall Street stole all that money from the people and forced the world to come to this. If anything, they are just stealing the money back from the people that crashed the economy because of their corrupt business practices.
The interview with Julie Style’s Elizabeth is used as a neat framing device that also reveals the inner workings of Destiny as a character. She questions Elizabeth if she has ever had to worry about putting food on the table or keeping the lights on, which she obviously had not. Perhaps this is a bit obscure of a reference, but the personal struggles exhibited by Destiny and to a lesser extent, Ramona, are reminiscent of the song “What Would You Do?” by City High. This R&B song that came out in 2001 details an encounter the lead singer had with an old friend when she reveals that she had to become a stripper to feed her son. If you are having difficulty relating to the circumstances of these women, I would give the song a listen. The lyrics go:
“What would you if your son was at home —
Crying all alone on the bedroom floor —
‘cause he’s hungry, And the only way to feed him is to sleep with a man for a little bit of money —
And his daddy’s gone, somewhere smoking rock now, in and out of lockdown, I ain’t got a job now —
So for you this is just a good time, but for me this is what I call life”.
Destiny almost perfectly mirror’s the chorus’s words with her experience in the film where she can’t get a job, has to provide for both her daughter and her grandmother, and she was forced to do acts that she was not totally comfortable with, and who are we to judge the actions of a person as desperate as she was?
Of course, a film that tackles this sort of subject matter is likely to stir up plenty of debate as to how much it does or doesn’t support common feminist ideals. There is something unjust about the idea of a middle-class white boy, like myself, judging a film that is made by almost an entirely female cast and crew (with the exception of minor male characters) about how feminist it is. I should not be the final jury as to whether or not this film does or does not further this ideology, but I hope you all already knew that. In my unqualified opinion, I believe the message of “Hustlers” is all about female agency and utilizing everything in one’s capability to succeed. While there is no doubt that exotic dancing contributes to the objectification of women, the idea that the women choose for themselves their path is what I find so progressive. If anything, the film portrays the male characters as easily manipulated by the female characters because the women are able to take advantage of how predictable male behavior is. It is actually what makes these women so formidable and capable of pulling off the crimes they committed.
Ultimately, “Hustlers” is a film about just how far people will go when they are desperate, and just how dangerous desperate people who know what they are doing are. The film wants to you to ask yourself what you would do if you have only one way out and then realize that you couldn’t possibly know until you are there yourself. The film is not one that I typically would have given a fair chance in my past but I am glad that I did. I was very entertained and enthralled with the personal struggles of the two leading women.
I would give “Hustlers” a hearty 8.5 out of 10
Directed by: Lorene Scafaria
Starring: Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Mette Towley, Lili Reinhart, Keke Palmer
Runtime: 1 Hour and 50 Minutes